Fixing a global news problem

This is part of a series on platforms and the press published jointly by CJR and the UCLA Institute for Technology, Law & Policy.

Two-thirds of counties in America today have no daily newspaper. Over the past decade, the number of newspaper reporters has dropped 47 percent. Print advertising revenue has fallen by two-thirds since 2006. 

America is not alone. The World Association of News Publishers highlight declines in ad revenues of 50 percent in Romania and 55 percent in Australia. The number of journalists working in South Africa halved in a decade. In the Middle East, 80 percent of print publications closed in the decade up to 2021.

The digital-first news pioneers believed online news portals would not only fill the void, democratizing the collection and dissemination of information, but also enable citizens to effectively hold power to account. Instead, we’re seeing news deserts from Colombia to South Africa, from Australia to the United States. Media unable to survive face capture by vested interests and autocratic oligarchs and governments. 

But the collapse of journalism and democracy in the face of the internet is not inevitable. Technology is not the problem—concentration of ownership, monopolistic practices, tax avoidance, and profiteering are.

Because while newspapers, TV, and radio—and independent online media—have suffered often terminal decline, the tech giants, including Facebook and Google, have reaped the rich rewards via revenues that used to go to journalism. Today they control the market.

They do so while enriching themselves from content created by freelance journalists and media for which they do not pay, while paying little or no tax. The 2019 Silicon Six report estimated that six tech companies had collectively avoided $155.3 billion in taxes over ten years. 

News media, concerned governments, and campaigners have fought back. The Australian Mandatory Bargaining Code fostered negotiations to redistribute $115 million to select, mostly larger, media. The EU’s Copyright Directive introduced new rights for publishers to negotiate payment for some content, even if it ignored the rights of freelance journalists to a fair share of the revenues. Global discussions have sought to introduce a global minimum tax rate. More and more governments have imposed digital service taxes, but they are often limited in scope, with tax rates ranging from 2 percent to 7.5 percent of revenue (rather than profit), and so can easily be passed on to consumers.

Media development organizations have begged governments to increase Overseas Development Assistance and established funds to raise pledges from philanthropic donors. Even Google and Facebook themselves, without a hint of irony, pledged funds to support media. None of these projects tackled the root cause of today’s media crisis. 

Publishers don’t want handouts. They want a level playing field. Journalists don’t want charity, they want rights. Citizens don’t want corporations deciding which media are deserving and which are not.

Google and Facebook are the world’s largest news platforms—they should be treated like other publishers. They must be taxed. Not token minimum tax rates, but taxed equally on their profits with funds used, in part, to support public interest media. Such a tax would not raise millions, but billions.

It is what drove the IFJ to launch its Global Platform for Quality Journalism—a set of principles that should guide media sustainability debates.

It is an approach that, through the international trade union movement and with the Tax Justice Network and CICTAR, we have taken to debates on the digital market and global tax rates in the OECD and EU, on initiatives by India at the UN and on media freedom in UNESCO.

Those who resist argue it is an attempt to close down free speech—or that we are luddites in a modern world or simply want state funding and control over journalism. They say our aims are laudable but unworkable: How, for instance, do you prevent profit-shifting or avoid stifling innovation?

The COVID-19 pandemic and the economic consequences of that have given momentum and newfound political interest to such ideas. With global initiatives blocked by vested interests or falling short, unions around the world are working on national solutions. The IFJ has supported the work of the Brazilian federation of journalists, FENAJ, to draft legislative proposals for taxing the platforms and the criteria for the establishment of a Fund for the Promotion of Journalism. Similar initiatives are being championed by journalists’ associations in Peru, Jordan, and the UK.

Brazil will test the water, with the new government set to debate FENAJ’s proposal this year. Big Tech will engage its vast army of lobbyists. Facebook and Google may black out news and search as a show of strength. We will be accused of threatening freedom of expression.

That is why our campaign in Brazil is aimed not just at the policymakers but citizens too—building a coalition of those who want not just a continuation of media as it is but whose voices have been marginalized and dare to dream of there being scarcely a hamlet that does not have its own news media.

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Jeremy Dear is deputy general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, having served fifteen years as general secretary, president, and organizer for the National Union of Journalists in the UK and Ireland.